The right to have a say in government decisions that affect our lives is foundational to democracy.

In the Rio Grande Valley, that fundamental right doesn’t come easy for many residents. Nearly a third of Hidalgo County’s total population is considered to have Limited English Proficiency, meaning they speak English less than “very well,” as the US Census classifies it. Despite the large Spanish-speaking population, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court has failed to fulfill their federal obligation to provide meaningful access to civic participation for their Spanish-speaking constituency by not providing translation services for those who request it.

Members of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and partner organizations A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE) and Texas Housers have worked with community members to ensure the county indeed serves limited-English proficient residents by providing simultaneous translation at drainage district meetings.

Those demands go back to early 2018. On April 10, Alberta Ramirez, a resident of Colonia Owassa Acres outside of Edinburg, stepped up to the podium at the Hidalgo County Drainage District #1 (HDD1) Board of Directors monthly meeting. Ramirez, a long time LUPE member, spoke in Spanish to thank the Precinct 4 Commissioner and the drainage staff for working with her community to address the drainage problems that affected her neighborhood. She then reminded the board of the community’s request for simultaneous translation “because we would like to understand what you are talking about.”

Other community leaders who have been advocating better flood protections and attended the drainage district and commissioner court meetings regularly shared the sentiment. Residents attended the monthly meeting for years to increase transparency and civic engagement around the colonias drainage infrastructure needs. During that time, they relied on community organizers or volunteers to translate what was discussed at the public meetings.

Marco Lopez, a community organizer for LUPE, would often translate for the union members in attendance.

“Most of the time, it’s difficult to get colonia leaders to participate because of the distance, and this made it harder too,” he said. Lopez felt “like I wouldn’t get the exact point across that residents were thinking. Many did impromptu speeches, and I felt like my translation didn’t have the same weight.”

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With the help of Texas Housers and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the community groups came to understand the county’s obligations to provide the service under the Limited English Proficiency Plan.

“When I found out about their responsibility, to me, it was obvious that they were violating some civil rights,” Lopez said. I never understood why we translated for them. It is not our responsibility. The county had a plan; they just weren’t doing it.”

Residents and organizers worked with legal services to outline their concerns for simultaneous translation and the requirements of the current plan. One issue in the current policy is that it appears to require non-English speakers to pay for a translator. The plan states that county staff may assist with communications with LEP individuals but “if staff cannot assist, private interpreter services can provide translation service for a reasonable fee.”

Residents do not think they should be forced to pay to be a part of the government. They submitted their request at the drainage district meeting in May. They continued their advocacy, met with all of the commissioners and with Judge Ramon Garcia, all of whom supported the idea behind closed doors. Community leaders continued requesting the service month after month during the public meetings.

On Aug. 14, Janette Rodriguez, child in her arms, addressed the court in Spanish:

“Good morning to all my name is Janette Rodriguez, I am from the Colonia Eduardo 7 and am here again to once again solicit that we need these meetings to be available in Spanish so we can have more participation in important matters about our colonias. We have waited four months and have not gotten anywhere about our request for translations at these meetings. We feel ignored, and we are asking you to consider our petition so we can understand the meetings and have more participation..”

As they stepped away from the podium, Valde Guerra, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court Executive Officer asked, “Are you going to translate?” Lopez refused to translate for the court and the public in attendance, leaving Guerra stumbling for words. Guerra then broadly summarized what was said for the English speakers in the room.

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The next speaker was Martha Sanchez, the organizing coordinator for LUPE. She was quick to point out the importance of translation asking, “Why is it that one group (English speakers) gets translation, and the other doesn’t?” She added that it was a “perfect example of discrimination against our people.”

Sanchez continued, “That’s why we have been asking for it for the longest time, just the same way that you translate for them,” she said pointing to the English speakers. “The people want simultaneous translation.” Sanchez cited that federal law supports their demand and finished by saying, “We just wanted you to see how important it is that everybody understands.”

On Sept. 11, the Hidalgo County Commissioners court convened, and some residents were surprised to see agenda printed in Spanish. There was still no simultaneous translation service offered, but the community sees it as a first step. Guerra has reported that the purchasing department is reviewing the technology requirements and the certified interpretation services that they intend to have ready by October.

Residents and community organizers believe the lack of simultaneous translation is an example of the systemic barriers to civic engagement that many still face in this country. It partly demonstrates the reasons why residents are unappeased, disengaged, or ignored by local politics. Lastly, it shows how “majority-minority” communities like the Valley continue to reinforce caste systems that benefit the “privileged” and obstruct groups based on their national origin, economic status, skin color, and language.

To undo those systems, Hidalgo County needs to bolster its Limited English Proficiency Plan and provide simultaneous translation service immediately.
Josue Ramirez is an editorial board member at Neta and the co-director of Texas Housers.

This post was published under Neta’s “Community Voices,” a space for community members of the Rio Grande Valley to publish stories, opinions, information, and ideas. Posts in this section solely reflect the views of the authors. To read more from Community Voices, click here.